Innovative Professional Development: Are We Teaching Best Practice or Modeling It?

How can we, as educators, reinvent professional development to support best teaching practices and reduce the strain on our technology department?

by / February 6, 2017

Have we forgotten what it looks like to learn technology? It involves clicking, searching, failing, succeeding and sharing. How often do we observe or say, “Look what you can do with this [program/tool/thing]?” What we mean is, "Look what I can do with it." If they could do it, then they would do it.

Professional development (PD) — especially technology PD — should incorporate playtime. Time to explore, make mistakes, share and gain confidence. Playtime during technology builds on several characteristics of teaching and learning. We have to continue to ask ourselves, "Are we teaching a tool or are we developing professionals?" If we are teaching tools, then make a video. If we are developing professionals, then here are some ways to innovate PD.

Learning Is Social

The sociocultural learning theory developed by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky sees learning as a social process where skilled people encourage and teach others what they know in what's called a zone of proximal development. Culture and language also play a big role in the cognitive development process. 

In technology PD, the phrase “meet teachers where they are” is huge. The problem is that we tend to interpret it as "dumb down the training" rather than appropriately challenging each learner. More importantly, that phrase is only a single component of the theory in which learning environments — our PD — can develop a shared culture and language, as long as we appropriately challenge our learners (work in their zone of proximal development). What is the culture that your PD will develop? Talking and sharing supports that learning and culture.

Passion Comes After the Work

How did we learn to use technology? Was it at a training from a coach or mentor, or was it from time that we carved out to check it out and learn? I would be willing to bet that leaders in educational technology did not have a predisposition to use technology. Many of us were born before there was an Internet, AOL, email or floppy disks that would hold an entire page of writing. We were not born with a passion for technology integration; that came after we played with it, on our own time, because of some other motivation. It was only then that we developed a passion for ed tech.

If you love what you do, then you will not feel like you're working a day in your life. Many of us would not call our technology learning experience "work" because we had another motivation. We need to understand that our learners may not feel the same way. Let teachers play during the training. They are busy enough that play as “work” will develop into a passion when their natural creativity takes over and they can see how this applies to their students.

Build Capacity through Interdependence

We have designed our training to develop capacity. It is driven by a small department supporting a lot of teachers, but also — more importantly — by how we value the support system that teachers have for each other at their schools.

Training should help develop a professional learning community (PLC) where teachers can learn together. There are many teachers at each school site. Several teachers attend a training. Let's use these two facts to our advantage when designing training. Creating capacity in training means that we shift from the trainer having a teaching responsibility to a learner taking on learning responsibility. A good trainer is an expert on the material. A great trainer helps others feel like the learners in the room, collectively, are experts on the material. Great training methods develop interdependence among the group and inspire PLC rather than a dependence on a single person in the district. How do we do this?

Who answers the questions at the PD? Does the trainer? They do if they are monopolizing time and conversation. Incorporating play slows the question and answer cycle, forcing teachers to ask each other, and usually brings the suggestion of searching for the answer. As teachers work in small groups, the trainer is forced to move through the groups and help groups out individually, and they can shift to guiding through questioning rather than telling by answering.

John Morgan Contributing Writer

John has been a chemistry teacher and athletic coach, and is now an educator currently assuming the role of director of educational technology. He works to transform and innovate in education by inspiring teachers to create amazing learning experiences for students. John also blogs at EdTech with a Purpose.